When Elizabeth Strout Critiqued My Pages

Elizabeth Strout, How She Came to Be A Favorite Author: Part One

An author from Maine, now living and working in New York City, Elizabeth Strout published her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, in 1998. The basic storyline echoed some unfortunate headlines, examining, “the close relationship between Isabelle and her teenage daughter Amy, how their relationship comes to be strained after Amy is groomed by her much older math teacher.”

A reviewer in the New York Times summarized the new writer’s talent: “…the story’s true drama lies in the palpable, intricate way it examines the ‘scrape of longing’ that drives these characters toward human contact, leaving them raw and bleeding yet also more fully alive.”

I read her debut, then her second novel, Abide with Me, (2006) summarized as: a religious leader, struggling with the death of his wife, in a small New England town, in the 1950s. Still New England, but Strout flexing her writing muscle, wowing some of the reviewers while finding her way. She would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature on March 25, 2008, for creating the amazing character who appears in a collection of short fiction: OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Now with no place to go but up, Strout published THE BURGESS BOYS in 2013, a novel with Maine roots that takes place in New York City.

I GET TO MEET HER

In the summer of 2006, I did what had become a delightful summer habit, I would attend a writing workshop at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. The catalogue listed Elizabeth Strout, offering a weekend course on writing THE NOVEL. I signed up.

What kind of a teacher was this future Pulitzer Prize winner that auspicious weekend? Well, nervous, apologizing that this was a new experience for her—but talking about her passion, which of course is writing.

She spent the first day explaining how she’d come to be a fiction writer. I don’t think attendees, myself included, found this very helpful or exciting—but looking back, Elizabeth was truly sharing the nuts and bolts of her writing process, encouraging those of us who might also be experiencing an unusual start, a bumpy start.  

Married to her first husband at the time, Strout mentioned that her in-laws didn’t understand why her dining room and a room in her basement were littered with scarps of paper, quick ideas that she jotted down, pages and pages, most-often written in long-hand and not always placed in organized piles. (Strout later taught herself how to compose at the computer) but I understood that moments of creation often come through the fingers, and at the time, longhand was her process. Though I don’t want to bore you with these details, as a struggling writer, I found it all fascinating.

MY LITTLE GIFT & HER ANALYSIS

Before that weekend, I’d found a furniture advertisement in a women’s magazine, the usual, except that the table had a neat pile of books and Strout’s AMY & ISABEL was prominently displayed. I brought the page with me, clipped it to my homework assignment.

Elizabeth had asked us to provide one chapter from our work-in-progress. I was working on my second novel, THE MOON DOCTOR, (still unpublished) about a burn victim who finds his traumatic experience has given him the power to heal others–without the need for medical school. 

Strout read ten pages from a chapter in the middle of the book. Her final comment:

There’s a lot going on here, and it’s very intriguing. It seems you have quite an interesting plot at work here, and some very good details. I think you might work on making sure every sentence is direct and ‘true.’ We will talk more about this in workshop and conference. (Thanks for enclosing the cover of the brochure displaying my book. That was very thoughtful of you.) Elizabeth Strout.

For interested fellow writers, she underlined phrases, stating that they WEAKENED my presentation. Her message: these sentences were not true to my voice.

Example: All of these thoughts skittered around the encumbrance of his physical body.  YES, I agree, a truly horrible sentence.

He slowly removed the IV catheter from Jolene’s arm. He’d forgotten a 4by4 and instead watched a snake of dark blood pool down onto the bed linen. Strout wrote: good use of detail.

Was Strout a great teacher? No. I know she’d be so much better now, as I have listened to her interviews, she being more assured, eager to share her writing process, because she has succeeded, truly succeeded. And her life has radically changed, her fourth novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, performed on Broadway, the dialogue spoken by Laura Linney.  

A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT ELIZABETH STROUT…so next week, I will review Strout’s recent novel, OH, WILLIAM! when Strout is once again in the world of Lucy Barton, the main character of MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON and her collection of short stories, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

Thanks for reading. 

 

My INDEX TO AUTUMN

 

My INDEX TO AUTUMN

DEFINITION of INDEX: an alphabetical list of names, subjects, etc.,  typically found at the end of a book.

AFTERNOON: angle of light in; soccer games in; time to rake leaves, walk in;

APPLES: bobbing, drying, picking; for pies; green, red, yellow; teachers dislike for–truth revealed;

ARGUMENTS DURING: regarding football games on TV, leaf raking;

BABIES: record number conceived in; riding in strollers for walks;

BASKETS Of: apples, cinnamon bread, dried flowers, pumpkins;

BIRDS: departure of; feeding with break crumbs, pumpkin seeds;

BLANKETS: washing, adding to beds, especially in colder climates;

BOTTLES: contents of: cider, wines, window cleaner;

CANDY: see cavities;

CAVITIES: see candy, Halloween;

CHILDREN: arguments concerning leaf raking, trips to ER after football, soccer games;

CORN: husks; stalks in fields; sweet with butter;

CROPS: abundance of; ruined by rain/winds; varieties: cranberries, melons, pears, yams;

DYING: sunlight along the grass; light in the tops of the trees;

FOOTBALL: games, scores, tailgates; see also arguments about…

FROST: first; preparation for; harm to delicate plants not covered; see cultivars;

GRAPES: arbors of; jams, jellies; wreathes made from branches of;

GRASS: color of; reduced growth of; spreading roots;

GREEN: grass after rainfall; see photosynthesis;

HALLOWEEN: cornstalks; costumes; light on the night of; rain on the night of; scarecrows; tricks by children; See shaving cream, toilet paper;

HARVEST: moon;

HUSBAND: arguments about football games and raking leaves;

INDIAN SUMMER: stories, length of; discussion as to whether term is politically correct;

KILLING FROST: see frost;

LAWNS: covered with leaves; light from sun in late golden afternoons;

LEAVES: gold, plum, red, yellow;

MOON: harvest; full; lover’s moon; yellow; zenith hour;

PHOTOSYNTHESIS: cessation of in plants;

PUMPKINS: carving of; orange; size; transformation; See husband, children;

RAKE: varieties: bamboo, iron; plastic; verb: arguments pertaining to…

SLANT: of sunlight;

SQUIRRELS: everywhere; eat Indian corn off porches; bite into pumpkins;

SUNSETS: amazing…

TEENS: hanging in groups; homecoming; tricks on Halloween; football; testosterone;

TESTOSTERONE: see babies, teens; parenting;

WASHING: see windows;

WELCOME: see wreaths for doors;

WINDOWS: see washing;

WREATHS, on doors: corn husk, grape vine, soon to purchase evergreen; also, wreath of smiles. Autumn is the loveliest month.

Thanks for reading. This was written when my children were young. I save everything.

THANKS FOR THE GORGEOUS PHOTO FROM: Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words  

What Should We Citizens Know About Our Place in Society?

What Should We Citizens Know About Our Place in Society?

Sometimes there are rewards when one goes into EVERNOTE and finds things. This was a response to a question that came in my email, but McSweeneys never responded. Oh well, dissed again…so I’ll share it with you…

 

 

 

Dear McSweeney’s, Here is my answer to: WHAT SHOULD THE CITIZENS OF THE US KNOW ABOUT YOU AND YOUR PLACE IN SOCIETY? 

It is always better to approach a fearful time with knowledge and understanding. We can downplay fear if every individual focuses on personal worth, yet believes in specific goals going forward.

Partisans who fight against a conqueror display a deep love and belief in the country they fight for. In this time of Coronavirus, our goals must be to save lives, but also to preserve positive elements of our culture.

STAY WELL; PRESERVE OUR CULTURE 

I value what the generations before me and my generation have brought to the foundation and advancement of our country. Turning against a particular group of people in a time of upheaval and fear is always misguided and can get out of control in the hands of overly frightened people. That’s called hysteria, and though we are not there yet, it would be so wrong to see older generations, people of color and newly arrived immigrants as sacrificial lambs. (rereading this maybe we are there now…at least in the minds of some.)

Now is a time for each of us, regardless of age, background and status to view life on a continuum.

GENERATIVITY: WHAT IS IT? DO I LIVE, BELIEVING IN THIS?  

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote about generativity, stating that in the middle years of adult life we come to realize: I am what survives me.

Though giving birth is the ultimate act of generativity, it is a parent’s follow-through, his and her commitment to nurturing and growing this person, that truly matters. People of all ages experience generativity by creating: a business, song, piece of sculpture, the resolution of a problem, a scientific theory, recipe, article, novel, hybrid-rose.

Generativity means creating the very future itself through teaching, volunteering, voting, forming and helping social institutions—and by currently working to save lives in hospitals, community centers, churches and health centers. In each of these actions resides a part of us and the good in us—because what we generate moves into the future and provides for those coming after.

I am what survives me.

YOUR KEYS TO A HEALTHY LONG LIFE…

Psychologists confirm, that people who want to generate and create, do experience feelings of well-being and low levels of depression. And it is always true that if you are feeling sad or lonely, the best cure is reaching out to help someone else. (In our age of communication, many of us can do this without worrying about exposure to the virus.) And yes, there is some ego or need for power in our acts of creation, but when we generate for future generations, we cover over the power with love.

TAKE THE TEST BELOW

Erikson reminds us that our acts of having children and building societies indicates our “belief in the species.” Even though we know that horrific things can happen on our planet, like this virus, daily we forge ahead believing in our own generative powers and the goodness that can still exist on our earth. Let’s not forget that in these contentious times, if there is to be sacrifice—it should be the giving of time and energy, or of funding hospitals and health centers. This is not a time to distain a generation who has brought our people through other traumas and still have energy, knowledge and hindsight to give to all generations.

P.S. Below is a self-test that each of you can take to see if you believe in generativity. The test if from the Loyola Generativity Scale (LGS).

Read the following six items and mark:

O if the statement never applies to you;

1 if the statement sometimes applies to you;

2 if the statement often applies to you;

3 if the statement always applies to you;

Then add up your score.  Men, women in their 30s, 40s and 50s usually score 11.  Younger adults and adults in their 60s and older usually score slightly lower.

___ I try to pass along knowledge I have gained through my experience.

____I have made and created things that have had an impact on other people.

____I have important skills that I try to teach others.

____If I were unable to have children of my own, I would adopt children.

____I have a responsibility to improve the neighborhood in which I live.

____I feel that my contribution will exist after I die.

Thanks to Dan P. McAdams for the inspiration from his article GENERATIVITY:The New Definition of Success

P.P.SMcSweeney’s is a nonprofit publishing company based in San Francisco. McSweeney’s exists to champion ambitious and inspired new writing, and to challenge conventional expectations about where it’s found, how it looks, and who participates.

Revisiting Thoughts on Liminal Space

After 9-11 life was totally altered, for all of us. As a writer, I sat and stared at my manuscript wondering if anyone would ever read a novel again. My husband had been traveling—not to New York, but to Connecticut. When he finally got home late on Friday, there was relief. But normality escaped us. It escaped everyone.

Then in those next few days, a friend offered me some insight. It came in the words of Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest whose teaching is like that of the first St. Francis: empty yourself, be compassionate of others, especially those that are socially marginalized. Okay. How do I do that when I am angry and confused. 

TWENTY YEARS LATER 

And though time has passed, many of the same questions circle around us. So today, let me offer this…because the words that Father Rohr used to explain liminal space, will always be relevant and helpful when we find ourselves full of questions.

THE DEFINITION 

Liminal Space is:  a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be… It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else… It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…or do anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. 
- Richard Rohr

HOW WE REACT: COVID 19 and LIMINAL SPACE 

Many of us once again feel this terrible cloud of unknowing. Some of us are angry that our lives have suddenly changed, that we are struggling with loss, death, an alteration in social habits like wearing a mask, avoiding closeness to strangers, having to prove we are vaccinated…the list is long.

Families have been pulled apart, because some refuse to be vaccinated. Why? There are many excuses, some of which I find hard to accept when my generation and the generations of my children began with a series of vaccinations to protect them from illnesses that were not only inconvenient (chicken pox) but could also lead to blindness and deafness in their future children, German measles (rubella), and sterility in males (mumps). So it makes no sense to risk death, damage to one’s lungs, having to be intubated etc etc when many of the refuse-nicks started out their lives being vaccinated. And all they have to do now is WEAR A MASK. 

SO ARE WE AGAIN LIVING IN LIMINAL SPACE?

Let’s look at that definition again. “You have left the tried and true, the familiar, but have not been able to replace it with anything else. Being under a terrible cloud of unknowing.”

SUGGESTIONS…

Having been a healthcare worker, the first thing I would suggest is to work against that vacuum, that feeling of unknowing. Examine questions–can we go out; will we be safe; will my children be safe and still get a good education; can I go back to work instead of working from home? will life ever be normal again? YES TO ALL THESE QUESTIONS. IF YOU ACCEPT THIS NEW REALITY AND GET VACCINATED–and during this interim time, WEAR A MASK.   

THOUGH LIMINAL SPACE IS ONGOING… we must accept it. The feelings that are part of liminal space are common to daily living. We are always waiting for something: a job, a pregnancy, a graduation, a diagnosis, an acceptance letter, even a death; or a yes from someone whose yes might change our lives, and until we get that yes, we feel like someone else is holding the rest of our lives in his or her hands. IT’S NOT EASY. Liminal space brings frustration, depression. We hate living under that cloud of unknowing.

Thus we must look for the good news. It was true post-9-11, that we saw, heard and felt the warmth, love, understanding and giving of many Americans who did whatever they could to help those who had lost someone. Later it was young men and women who joined our volunteer army, feeling that was the best way to give.

Certainly liminal space always challenges us. We are rarely free of the unknowing—because we are mortal and have no knowledge of the date of our demise. That’s a given. But it can be used to power our love of self (taking care of our bodies) and love of those we live and work with (getting vaccinated so that we don’t get sick and infect others.) For how much better to offer understanding, honesty and friendship on a daily basis—because who really knows what the next hour will bring.

You’ll find examples every day of folks who have conquered the awful questioning of liminal space: 

the cancer patient who goes into remission and dedicates her time to helping other patients; the teacher who takes extra time to work with the very student who upsets his classroom; the doctor or nurse who enters the clinic every day, even when Covid death stats are rising; the cop who does all he can to make certain-sure before using deadly force; the mother, father, neighbor, citizen who listens and evaluates any situation before making a judgment or rising to anger.

THE CITIZEN WHO FINALLY REALIZES THAT GETTING VACCINATED IS GOOD FOR HIM/HER BUT IS ALSO A WAY TO GIVE BACK TO THIS GREAT COUNTRY. 

After 9-11 Richard Rohr reminded us that both Christian and Muslim mystics preferred the language of darkness. That is: they were most at home in the realm of not-knowing. In such darkness, Rohr writes, things are more spacious and open to creative response. We are more open to letting in God or blessed, positive thoughts–just like the cancer patient who is grateful for every day and turns darkness into light.

This from the Persian mystic Hafiz:

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.

Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you

As few human or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight has made my eyes so soft.

My voice so tender, my need of God, absolutely clear.

In this time of questioning, where we find ourselves often divided, even from friends and loved ones who feel and think differently than we do, try to accept and live in the cloud of unknowing. Try to move a bit closer to the other side or try to find something they share with you. It can be very challenging and just downright hard. But remember, you are both in liminal space, not truly knowing all. And if you have time: watch the film The Hundred-Foot Journey which underlines that people and cultures that are vastly different can cross the threshold and come to a place were there is not only knowing, but sharing and love.

Truly, we have no choice but to live on the threshold, uncertain of which path to take. We exist in this liminal space, a new normal that we must accept and work with so the cloud of unknowing will be transformed into one of understanding.

Thanks always to Father Richard Rohr and the art of Charlie Bowater 

A Gardener’s Beginnings: Another Chapter In My Story

A Gardener's Beginnings: Another Chapter In My Story

Some gardeners would say that a most enduring gift to offer a loved one would be a bouquet of blooms from their own patch of earth–red roses for passion, lilies for purity of heart, or some new cultivar that amazes with its scent and beauty.

But I say: what about dandelions? What about those crumpled bouquets of stringy stems and crushed flower? They are fervent, perfumed with a child’s love and devotion. They stretch across the years, becoming an eternal gift. But they could also be a gardener’s beginnings.

MY STORY

For me, it was the peony, those perfumed beauties bursting out in spring, to be picked and brought to my mother, who, to support her three children, because my father died early on, was typing insurance policies in our dining room.

Sometimes, she would take a break, and together we would sit on the front porch steps, drinking in the beauty of the eight bushes that lined our front walk. Spring was the perfume, the color–fuchsia, rose, white, their large yellow centers, truly cabbages of color that became pendulous in spring rains, heads drooping like my head on my mother’s shoulder. The best part? Getting a scissors and bringing them inside to fill jelly glasses, transforming our simple home with their color and scent.

BUT THIS, MY FIRST GARDEN

It happened when I was ten. My two generous aunts had this everlasting garden with stepping stones! They talked a language of bearded iris, delphinium, coreopsis, and rose scale. At our house, I watched the green grass turn brown, the bridal wreath bloom off, leaving only ragged masses of dusty leaves, while whiz, bang, I could hear my mother’s typewriter through the open, summer window.

But my mother listened to me, and with some money from her budget, we bought marigolds and petunias. She showed me how to plant them in a patch of soil by our gravel driveway–my first garden! She found time to help me pot some scarlet geraniums for the front porch, and she showed me how to hook up the sprinkler and water the lawn. IT WAS A START!

Then, as summer faded, magic happened. I gave her a bouquet of spicy marigolds, which we carefully arranged in my grandmother’s cut glass powder dish. (See the photo above, as I have recreated this moment.) A lovely present, but not as lovely as the look in her eyes when I presented them.

I WAS A GARDENER NOW…

I was like my generous aunts who came up the front walk on a chilly night heralding the arrival of autumn, bearing sheaves of chrysanthemums expertly cut and wrapped in waxed paper to protect their well-ironed dresses. Mom and I exclaimed over the amber ones, the maroon ones, the bright, fiery yellow ones. My brothers moaned. Autumn to them was heavy storm windows that had to be hung, the window washing that went with that chore, and expanses of leaf-covered grass.

For me, I was beginning to appreciate this part of a gardener’s cycle–the tidying up, the banking of the peony bushes with dried leaves, the getting ready for winter. It all had a purpose and finality that I didn’t mind–it held a promise.

That first winter, after I became a gardener, I would gaze at the snow-encrusted world, imagining an eventual thaw, the peonies parading the front walk–the re-creation. The spirit of gardening had taken hold of me, and I learned in time that it’s a firm hold, one you give yourself to over and over.

In my youth, the promise lived in the simple gifts I could give my mother. Yes, the flowers sang out to us, called to us with their colors and perfume, solidifying even more our love, now cultivated by our very living.

A Short Critique of Modern Love, Season Two…

Modern Love, short films based on stories sent to the New York Times, is back. Season Two. Minnie Driver kicks it of off with a charming story of a woman and the sleek sports car she loves to drive, though it requires many repairs to keep it alive. But slowly we discover the car is really something more, a symbol of the love this woman had for her first husband who has died. Watching her interactions with her daughter and second husband, we realize there is more to that aging auto than snatches of her memory. There is love and something else: a spiritual connection? Or something magical as Minnie drives the curving steep roads of the Irish countryside, always returning home safely.  

An Irish background is repeated in another story, where we meet two people traveling on a train from Galway to Dublin. Gradually they speak to one another, then sit with one another, hoping to have a real conversation when they are on the train, heading back to their respective careers after holiday. But why wouldn’t a tale of modern love include an exchange of at least an email address? But it’s a story and the very word story means a surprise is included. 

REVIEWS OF MODERN LOVE, SEASON TWO 

Critic Roxana Hadadi writes: “Modern Love was affected by COVID-era restrictions, with episodes that filmed in New York state and Dublin, Ireland. But the lack of technical creativity is a noticeable distraction. The green screen is eye-searingly conspicuous, imagined sequences are slightly embarrassing, and an over-reliance on flashbacks signals an awareness that the dialogue isn’t doing quite enough work to communicate the details or dynamics of these relationships in the present. “Modern Love” is easy to watch because it’s so non-challenging and because it asks so little of its viewers. But it’s even easier to forget.”  

But we will continue to watch, finding the story lines interesting, and the actors more than capable of awakening the plots. It’s always a combination: writer and actor. If the story doesn’t touch you, all the hard work from the actors might not touch you either.

LOOKING BACK TO SEASON ONE:  

The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes: Carried by its charming cast, Modern Love sweet and simple sensibilities are easy enough to enjoy, even if its quaint portrait of modern life in New York City doesn’t always ring true.

My favorites from Season One:    

  1. A single book critic bonds with her doorman following an unexpected pregnancy. 
  2. When a journalist asks a dating app’s CEO if he’s ever been in love, it sparks a conversation that will change the course of both of their lives.
  3. A gay couple hope to adopt a child.
FINAL THOUGHTS:  If you like short stories that shout out a New York City milieu, Modern Love Stories are for you. 

Memories and Their Power

Ann Patchett says: I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ from a sibling etc.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

“You have your wonderful memories,” people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the …faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
Joan Didion, Blue Nights

That’s Joan Didion, her words veering toward the negative. Because loss is tragic, hard, challenging. She longs for her daughter. That loss shakes up the foundations she depended on, and I applaud her words as a search for strength.

But can we be nostalgic when we are young? Yes.

Anne Frank was, writing in her diary of days past, knowing those days were gone, that her world was imploding and that she might never again sit in a classroom, walk the streets of Amsterdam free and unhindered, look forward to love, marriage and children.

Anyone who looks back in longing–for a friend, a house, a parent, an experience, can feel and write about their longings–this is nostalgia. You want something back, that you don’t want to forget.

CREATIVITY AND REMEMBERING 

There was a time when I began to write, that nostalgia seemed to propel me. Why? I was young, and I saw that my experience was in some ways limited. Some changes in my life had already happened (loss of a parent, early responsibilities as a result). And I saw that I didn’t want to relive my childhood, but that it dwelled within me, making my losses and gains part of me, the engine of my creativity.

Because when you write, you are either pulling things out of your own experience or making shit up. Both land on the page, and wow, you’re a writer. (Though not necessarily a good one. It takes time, lots of time. Maybe forever.)

SO WHAT IS THE ENGINE OF CREATIVITY?  

When Author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House, Commonwealth) takes a memory and infuses it with meaning, she then uses it in one of her novels. She describes her process this way: “I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ…” Because we know that fiction comes from seeds of experience. IT COMES FROM LIFE, FROM LIVING. And what one person sees or hears or feels, can differ from another.

EVEN FICTIONAL CHARACTERS LIVE IN OUR MEMORIES 

One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Strout, discovered that her characters refused to stay within the pages of past books. Though Strout left her home in Maine for New York City, Maine stayed with her. So did the voice, the face, the life of Olive Kitterridge, the eponymous title of the collection of short stories that won Strout the Pulitzer for fiction.  But Olive wasn’t finished. She continued to speak to Strout, and thus Olive Again came to be, more stories that take us back to Maine, but also (and this is to amazing and clever) bring back characters from Strout’s other novels. It’s delightful for Olive to find herself living in the same senior facility as the mother from Amy and Isabel, that being only one example. After writing My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout felt compelled to learn more about Lucy’s beginnings and sent her back to a small town in Illinois to reconnect with her siblings and other in a collection of stories, Anything Is Possible. We all do this: let our memories grow, fill out the stories of our lives, enhance them. At some level WE ARE ALL STORY TELLERS. 

WRITE IT DOWN 

Many of us kept or still keep a diary. It’s our lives on paper, our deepest thoughts and even our anger and our hurts. It’s not fiction, but it can fuel fiction and it always comes from the power of memory.

Talk to an old friend. Discover that the mention of a place, a high school crush, a certain teacher brings back a flood of memory. And though they aren’t always positive, they are part of our lives. Joan Didion wrote Blue Nights after losing her daughter. She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after the death of her husband. Joan used the power of her memory, of her words to seek healing. Each and everyone of us is a vessel of stories. Write them down. They are part of you, and they have power. 

Writers and where they live…  Part One

Writers and where they live…  Part One

The Santa Ana Winds of California

 

I’ve written a memoir of my early years in Chicago. I’ve written about PLACE (the house, the streets, the vegetation, the traffic, the people on the streets) because it colors so much of who we are. (You can reread my first post about PLACE here.)

No one can write fiction, a memoir, a biography without PLACE becoming a major character. Think of the wonderful selection of memoirs that have become best-sellers: Black Boy, All Creatures Great and Small, Born a Crime, Becoming, When Breath Becomes Air, The Glass Castle….all are filled with references to the place the author has lived, the streets he or she has walked.

And if you have moved during your life (I’ve lived in three different states) or even if you have remained in the same place your entire life (New York City, Colorado Springs, Huntsville Alabama, only to name a few) HOW DIFFERENT your life has been from the lives of others and from mine.

ILLINOIS 

Illinois is flat, flat. Even as a child, I knew that was in some way a detriment, as if flatness could be the butt of jokes. Then, after fourth grade, my amazing mother took me and my brothers to California! My uncle and cousins lived there, so why not! We traveled on the California Zephyr that runs from Chicago to San Francisco. WOW! Our train revealed parts of the country I had never seen: the plains of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains (real mountains not hills), Salt Lake City (they washed our train there) and on to San Francisco: the trolley cars, the harbor, the steep streets.

Weeks later, after seeing the Grand Canyon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, we headed home on another train, the El Caspitan that runs between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chicago. I met a girl my age on the train. I can’t remember where she lived, but it was a more glamorous place than what I was going home to. So when she asked me where I lived (flat flat Illinois) I said we lived near the “hills and the flats.” (a truly fourth grade answer) But it wasn’t a total lie. Beverly Hills, Chicago, is called “hills” for the following reason:

High bedrock under the retreating glaciers left the most prominent feature in the area, the Blue Island Ridge in South Chicago, a 6-mile-by-1-mile table of land that sits 25 to 50 feet above the adjacent flatland. Residents often identify their community as “Beverly Hills,” a reference to that glacial ridge just west of Longwood Drive, the highest point in Chicago. Wow, the highest point in Chicago …Even as a fourth grader, I knew that was something, and I lived two blocks from that RIDGE, which we called, “the hill.”

BEFORE AND BEYOND ILLINOIS

But after Illinois, there was Iowa (some hills) and then for the last seven years, California, I could see the bottom of a mountain out my window. But how does one, how does family gravitate to a place?

Again, the Uncle that moved there, his family, my cousins. We kept up the visits, weddings, touring. My brother moved there, and then one of my daughters did; grandchildren were born, and so yes, we did our California time and it was wonderful. I’ve written about California on this blog.

But I’m not alone, some of our most treasured authors have written about California, Joan Didion being one of them. Her works include: Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, The White Album, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. The last two volumes are diary-like, Didion trying to come to grips with the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and then the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo.

THINGS SO CALIFORNIA: The Santa Ana Winds 

If you have ever been in California when the Santa Anas blow, then you will feel them blowing in Didion’s passage:  

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

WIND, FIRES 

What did I love about California? Besides being near my grandchildren…sunshine is ever present. It lifts your spirits, though there is something called June gloom, but that is infrequent. The blue sky is full of dry soft winds, now and then a jet stream (at least where I lived). There are pepper trees and jacaranda trees, roses everywhere. Some people say they help hold back the fires.

Because yes, there are fires. (And earthquakes, though in the 7 years we lived there, we had only two experiences: one when my desk kinda rolled; the other hardly felt. But we bolted our TV to the wall, used museum glue behind art hangings. We also had two large emergency canisters in our garage which we never needed.

Wherever people live, they adjust. Joan Didion writes:

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.      

For instead of “fire and rain”, California has fire and wind–“It never rains in California, but Girl don’t they warn ya…

FINAL THOUGHT

As Edward Albee wrote: There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California. 

Next Week: Part 2

Ella In Her Garden

Ella In Her Garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following “story” which is my creation, recreates a personal experience. The nonfiction passages below that, relates back to that specific experience, which is real and more common for pregnant women in today’s medical world.

Ella can feel numbness moving into her legs. She’s been sitting in the garden for about ten minutes, feet tucked under her buttocks, gloved hands probing with the iron weed digger. Her angle is wrong. She shifts, the tingly sensation of flowing blood bringing back legs, feet.

The baby also shifts, a slight, quick wave of motion. Ella pounces on the tiny elm tree still rooted among the coreopsis. She leans another way, continues to work with the digger, her mind plotting what to do next: repot the small begonia that lies on the ground, its clay container broken by running squirrels; then deep-water the newly planted Spirea that might die in this drought.

The planting is a game of distraction, and the hot sunlight, the intense thrumming of crickets and cicadas. But she loses the game at least once an hour, sometimes every twenty minutes. The amniocentesis results are due today. Her portable phone is on the picnic table. David will be calling at lunch, talking about other things, waiting for her to break in, tell him, if she knows.

The baby moves again. Ella throws the digger to the ground, works with some effort to stand, her body no longer lithe, elegant. She’ll have Steve, who mows the lawn, dislodge the elm with a pitchfork.

Months of her life have been taken over by a fierce desire to bear and deliver another healthy child, a child to deny her aging or loss of touch with this growing world. She will do everything to keep this child, and yet living is in match step with exposing oneself to loss. “No matter what the results, Ella, with the choice you have made, there’s nothing we can do. You realize that,” the doctor had said.

Yes, she does, always certain she wants to get pregnant, know the health of the fetus. But that time is now. The moment close. And yes, the irony of testing.

She’s carrying this baby around inside her and it’s moving now, and no matter what the words are at the other end of the phone, it will still be moving around inside her. If the doctor calls and says, “Ella, you are carrying a Down Syndrome child,” the fetus won’t disappear, it won’t begin to shrink and slip away like a cloud losing moisture. The Downs Syndrome baby, the baby with neuro-tube defects, the anencephalic baby will still continue to grow inside of her.

Ella walks to the shed, hunts in its mustiness for the pitchfork. The grass is brittle beneath her tennis shoes, waves of air touching her like solid warm hands. She walks back, looking like a perfect balancing act, moving about her tasks as if every breath in the last few years has been stored up to get her to this point. Ella isn’t just pregnant. She is experiencing an amazing fulfillment of a wish.

The cicadas hum. The phone doesn’t buzz. She works at the elm seedling with the pitchfork.

“Mom…” Sarah comes around the corner, her hair springing away from the right side of her head where she has tied it with a big pink ribbon that matches her pink tank top and shorts. Ella reaches out to touch the top of her daughter’s head, the two strangely silent with each other.

Even before this pregnancy, Ella had crazy moments when she would look at her two young daughters, seeing them as her own flesh, slightly changed blueprints of herself. Touching them, her body would expand, become warm like the bodies of pregnant women. Her breasts would soften against Carrie’s chest, her abdomen balloon out to hold Sarah. The physicality of motherhood shouted at her. She needed that again, needed to make her body work again. She argued against this. Educated women do not succumb to thoughts of being “baby machines.” But Ella did succumb.

Sarah has sensed a distance in her mother all week. She knows she can use it to her advantage.

“I want to ride over to Lockwood’s and buy a pop.”

“There’s some in the house, better yet, I have fruit juice.”

“I’m kinda in the mood to ride my bike. Can I take a couple of dollars?”

“Okay. Take what you need, but watch the sugar. You know how you get.”

Sarah comes and puts her arms around her mother’s disappearing waist, buries her head in her chest—just for a moment. Ella had tried before to have this third child and then miscarried. And though she sometimes thinks about it now, it’s not as painful, this new pregnancy altering that sorrow, the pain, the hours of Ella being silent, wounded.

Waiting for the amnio results is better than what she has already been through. She is sure of this. She’s lived it, learned from it. Fear is a destructive force that can work against your joy and hope. Her doctor was firm: set fears aside. Statistics: only one fetus, out of one hundred conceived by women over the age of forty, would come into the world with Downs Syndrome. And Ella had already delivered two healthy children. The doctor also reminded her that anytime a woman conceives, there are chances that she could give birth to a child with some anomaly.

Her fertility is a gift, though modern medicine has played a part. And yes, she has walked down some dark passageways in her mind, but nothing will go wrong. She has set aside her fears. She will love this baby no matter the sex, the birthweight, the chromosomes. No matter any of it.

Back in the yard, Ella picks up the pitchfork, again works to loosen the elm sapling from her garden patch. If she is careful, and there are enough roots, she can replant it at the back fence.

And then, her phone rings.

P.S. Below is a passage by Ilana Lowy: from her Prenatal Diagnosis: the irresistible rise of the ‘visible fetus. Prenatal diagnosis was developed in the 1970s, a result of a partly contingent coming together of three medical innovations-amniocentesis, the study of human chromosomes and obstetrical ultrasound-with a social innovation, the decriminalization of abortion. Initially this diagnostic approach was proposed only to women at high risk of fetal malformations. Later, however, the supervision of the fetus was extended to all pregnant women. The latter step was strongly favored by professionals’ aspiration to prevent the birth of children with Down syndrome…

Debates on such dilemmas are usually limited to professionals. The transformation of prenatal diagnosis into a routine medical technology was, to a great extent, an invisible revolution.  Read more here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24440137/

Picture Credit: Golden Light, Colleen Taylor. Thanks to FINE ART AMERICA

FRED CALLERI — HIS ART “Calls” YOU BACK.

FRED CALLERI -- HIS ART "Calls" YOU BACK.

There is just something about Fred Calleri’s work that speaks to me. Certainly, nostalgia is a thing that even touched me when I was younger. Why? Because I like remembering, I LIKE looking back, counting the blessings of my life, the people I love, the friends that I have had, the places I have lived. Remembering is a way to once again get in touch with the people who loved me, supported me. Or the times when I was called to be strong, to strike out, make change, believe in the paths I wanted to follow.

So when I found Fred Calleri’s art on the net, I got that “you’ve been there in your life, in your dreams” feeling. I wanted to know how and why he chose his subjects, placed them in comforting, nostalgic scenes.    I DID FIND THIS…

Fred Calleri’s experience at The Maryland Institute College of Art 1988-1993 was a watershed event artistically. The excellent training he received opened the window to all fields of art. ​Ironically, Fred took one painting class in college and only became seriously interested in professionally painting after the birth of his son in 1997. Then…in 2001…

after an extensive period in Graphic Design and Marketing, he decided to move to Flagstaff, Arizona, and take advantage of the history, scenery, people and especially the astounding light offered in the western regions of the U.S. What began to evolve was a blending of the representational with some quirky distortion, as well as an effort to create a deeper narrative within his work.

He writes on his website: ​I like to explore the figure, and representational painting in general. By adding a slight distortion, I am free to let the image create itself using each piece as a lesson that is used in the next piece. The historical or ‘period’ nature of the work lends itself to a style (and a palette) that I enjoy, and reaches back to a seemingly simpler time. This theme inspires me creatively. I use it as an opportunity, trying to incorporate the style into each challenge I confront.

As one looks at my work, it is easy to see that the subject matter of each piece can vary. (sometimes drastically). The things a person can find themselves doing in life also varies and I enjoy the challenge of injecting my figures into this world.

My influences are from a wide variety of genres, from The Masters to the great Illustrators and many Artists alive today. They remind me constantly that the journey never ends and there is great knowledge to be gained.

I work in a studio attached to my home in Santa Barbara. Using vintage reference photos, live models and imagination, the work is then created on Masonite Panel or Canvas. When using black and white references, much of the color is created from imagination.

Fred currently lives in Santa Barbara, CA. His work has been featured in: Southwest Art, International Artist, American Art Collector, Western Art Collector, Santa Fe Magazine, (NAZ) Mountain Living Magazine. Check out his website here: http://www.fredcalleri.com/home.html

ENJOY!!